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Recession Fuels Tide of Illegal Migrants

Kadir S. was caught at the Hungarian border about two months ago with fake documents identifying him as a French citizen.

He was trying to get from Turkey to Germany, where he said everyone in his family except his parents lives. "I have to get there, too. I want to work and send money to my elderly parents. I tried to go legally, but the authorities wouldn't give me a visa. I was forced to find other ways to go."

Kadir is free while awaiting trial on charges of crossing the border using fraudulent documents, which he says he received in Bulgaria. "I sincerely say to you that I don't know the person who gave me the documents because another person introduced me to him. I paid 500 euros, money I got from my brothers in Germany," he said.

Kadir is one of about 800 people caught in the first half of this year trying to cross from Romania into Hungary.

There's nothing new about illegal migration, but officials here have seen a pronounced spike upward. The trend is being fed by Hungary's December 2007 entry into the Schengen zone, a region within Europe that allows the free movement of people and goods without border checks. Border security is especially sensitive in countries like Hungary and Slovakia, which form the zone's outer ring.

The jump also comes despite Romania having built more border posts along the Hungarian and its other frontiers and having stepped up cooperation with other European immigration authorities. Databases have been upgraded and border police training has intensified, according to Ion Handra, chief of the border police in Arad, the main crossing point from western Romania into Hungary.

And yet the immigrants come in ever greater numbers, spurred also by the economic downturn.

According to data from the Romanian Border Police, in 2007 border guards caught 1,164 people trying to enter Hungary illegally. Last year, the number was 1,628. This year looks set to match or exceed that.

"It's obvious that African and Asian citizens, but also those from the European countries that are not part of the Schengen zone, are worse off than before the crisis," Handra said. "I think that is certainly going to lead to more migration into the Schengen area. These people earn 3 euros a day. They would do anything to live in Germany or Great Britain."

Mihaela Les, spokeswoman for the Arad border police, said that most of the immigrants are from Turkey and Moldova, followed by Albania, Egypt, India, Pakistan, the Palestinian Territories, China, Somalia, and other countries in Asia and Africa.

Authorities estimate that the number of those who enter the Schengen zone illegally through Romania is probably twice the number border guards catch. Desperate immigrants tend to be persistent, said Ioana Dubat, spokeswoman for the Arad County prosecutor's office.

"We had a case in which a person tried to sneak over the border every day for a week. In the end I think he did it."

"Some tell us, 'There's nothing left where I used to live.' Others say that they had to sell their house to raise the money for the journey," Dubat said.

First-time offenders are set free while their case is investigated and prosecuted. Dubat said that means that by the time a trial is finished, which can take up to two years, the person has likely left Romania. Those who seek asylum are sent to centers where they are free to come and go, required to check in only at night. As a result, they, too, often head back to the border, Handra said.

PASSING THROUGH

Handra said about 70 percent of illegal immigrants enter Romania under false pretences.

Some claim to come as tourists or to visit their family, as is the case of many Turks from Bulgaria. Moldovans come under work or study visas.

"Usually they have a plan prepared before trying to leave Romania illegally. They already know whom to seek and act according to an elaborate plan, of course all this for a substantial payment. I think that maybe under 15 percent of the immigrants try to cross illegally on their own," Handra said.

Les, the border police spokeswoman, said many illegal migrants try to hide in trucks, among the cargo. Others use cargo trains or specially outfitted boxes in car trunks.

About 15 percent try their luck by crossing a field along the border, avoiding checkpoints altogether.

"Most of the immigrants have people waiting for them in Hungary who help them to go further into the Schengen countries. Usually the Turks go to Germany where there's a very strong community, the Moldovans go to Spain and Italy. Other destinations are England, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus," Les said.

Romanian authorities say illegal immigrants here use well-organized channels to reach the Schengen zone.

According to Dubat and Handra, the services of traffickers cost from a few hundred to a few thousand euros. "The traffickers typically handle all the details, from obtaining false documents, arranging the border crossing, sometimes even guiding the immigrant to the final destination," Dubat said.

The most common route for Turks, Handra said, is via Bulgaria, where they receive fake documents.

Vasile A. is Exhibit A. A citizen of Moldova, he was caught with false papers trying to cross the border into Hungary. He said he came to work in Romania legally but decided soon afterward that he could make more money in Germany.

"I left Moldova because it's very poor. After a month of working there with the money that you earn you barely survive. I have a lot of friends in Germany and I know it's much better there," he said. "Why is it my fault that I was born in a poor country and I want a better life? Why can other nationalities go anywhere they want and I can't? I want to live in my country also but what can I do if the jobs pay so badly that you can barely make ends meet?"

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